A Family Tragedy

One of the risks of doing genealogy is finding the unknown or unspoken family tragedy. We probably all have them, those things too sad, or perhaps considered to be too embarrassing to talk about. My discovery involved the untimely death of a younger brother of my grandmother, i.e. a great uncle. His name was Albert Marsh. He is buried with his parents in the Wataga cemetery. His story, in many ways is timeless. The cause of his death, a handgun, remains a much-debated issue for our own culture today.

Albert Marsh was a young man at the time of his death. He was born on February 21, 1896, the son of Charles F. and Ella Marsh. Albert worked as a farm hand on a farm located about two miles south of Galesburg on Seminary Street. The farm was owned by John Vitum but was farmed by Ernest B. True. The original farmhouse, a pretty place, still exists, as does the old barn. Albert Marsh, besides being a farm hand, was interested in handguns. He owned one, a recent purchase. It was ultimately to prove to be responsible for his untimely death at the age of 19.

Testimony at the inquest was to ascertain that the gun was faulty; was known to be faulty; and that he had been encouraged not to use it. But it was his only handgun and he declined to discard it.

On April 20, 1815, Albert Marsh left the True farmhouse after dinner, saying that he was going out to shoot some of the numerous ground squirrels inhabiting the hog lot. He had his defective pistol with him. He had bought the gun a few weeks earlier. Several shots were fired. However, when Ernest True noticed later that Albert had not returned to work at the appropriate time, he went out to investigate. He found Albert dead, lying in a pool of blood, with gunshot wounds to the head. He went to the house, called Wesley Williamson, brother-in-law to Albert, and then Dr. E. Franing of Galesburg. At the time of his death, Albert Marsh lived with his older sister, Nina, and her husband, Wesley Williamson. They farmed property located only a couple of miles west of the Vitum farm.

At the inquest, there was testimony submitted by Clarence Poland who reported to be an eyewitness to the event. He stated that he heard shots while at the Gering residence. He walked out onto the porch and observed Albert at a distance of about ''350 steps.'' He walked about ''250 steps'' toward Albert when Albert fired again and fell. At this point, Clarence Poland returned to the Gering residence. Oddly, no reason was provided in the newspaper article explaining why Clarence Poland did not advance the remaining 100 steps to Albert. He testified that he heard a total of about four shots.

Dr. Franing testified that Albert had two head wounds inflicted by the pistol. The first was non-fatal, striking Albert above the right eye. The 32-caliber ball passed through the bridge of the nose and cut the lid of the left eye. The second shot passed through the skull and brain, causing death. The doctor concluded that he believed both shots were fired at close range, and were fired with suicidal intent.

In contrast to this conclusion, both his employer, Ernest True, and his brother-in-law, Wesley Williamson testified that Albert was of a ''very cheerful disposition'' and that he was never given to despondency. Wesley Williamson testified that Albert was ''never serious minded nor melancholy.'' He also stated that Albert had no troubles, financial or otherwise.

My grandfather, Wesley Williamson, outlined an alternative explanation of why a young Albert Marsh was dead from his own handgun. Wesley reported that Albert had purchased the used handgun about a month earlier. It was in poor condition. A spring was broken and it could not be cocked except by pushing the trigger forward with one hand while the hammer was pulled back with the other. Wesley said the gun was dangerous and he told Albert to throw it away. Albert declined, saying that he needed it for self-protection when going to Galesburg.

Wesley stated that Albert held the gun toward his face with both hands in order to cock the broken gun. He speculates that the gun fired accidentally, causing the first blinding wound -- and it was accidental.

Speculation reported in the newspaper article was that the first shot was accidental but that the second was intentional, due to the blindness and perhaps insanity caused by the first wound. The jury at the inquest returned a verdict ''Šthat the deceased came to his death by a gunshot wound from a gun held by himself.''

I have a book that belonged to Albert Marsh. It was inscribed ''Albert Marsh, City, Year of 1911.'' The writing appears to be that of his older sister, my grandmother. The title of the book is ''Thrilling Lives of Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill'' written by Frank Winch and published in 1911. As the title implies, it is a typical book of the period, extolling the super-human events of the Civil War and the taming of the West, by brave deeds and by gun.

Today, the house and barn still exists. As a child, I rode the school bus by it. Later, I drove by it on the way to high school, to dates, to work, and later to Knox College. It has only been in the last few years that I learned of the death of my great uncle, at the age of 19 by his own hand, by his own gun. Now when I drive by the farm, I cannot help but think about the events that day. It makes no sense to ponder the event that occurred so long ago, but nevertheless, the thought comes. From a genealogical sense, it was not only his death, but the death of the potential of those who might have followed in his footsteps.

It was Š a family tragedy.

Terry Hogan


Uploaded to The Zephyr website May 3, 2000

Back to The Zephyr home page at: www.thezephyr.com